Muslims daily lock and unlock the most hallowed building of Christianity, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. This ancient structure encompasses Golgotha and the tomb of our risen Lord — both within one great edifice. Christians have so much trouble getting along that we cannot agree how to share the task of locking and unlocking the building!
Thank God for the Nusaybah clan, Muslims who have faithfully discharged this simple duty for Christians for more than a millennium. When Caliph Omar conquered Jerusalem in A.D. 637, he promised to protect Christian places of worship and made the Nusaybahs custodians of the church key to ensure Christian access. This arrangement continued after A.D. 1187 when Sultan Saladin recaptured Jerusalem from the Crusaders.
Six Christian groups have jostled ever since to control space inside the church — Latin Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian, Coptic, Syriac and Ethiopian. Each tradition has precisely delineated turf, as outlined in an 1853 truce called the Status Quo. Hoping to get Christians to cooperate with each other, Muslims of the Ottoman Empire who then governed the Holy Land, prescribed the Status Quo.
Relations between the six Christian groups remain testy. City police (who are Jews) sometimes must enter to break up fistfights between users of the building (who are Christians) when they argue about how to enforce the Status Quo (arranged by Muslims)!
Protestants or Anabaptists who might be tempted to look down our noses at such behavior among Christians of other traditions would do well to consider our own histories of division. Unresolved conflicts between or within our communions are many. These are in disregard of Jesus’ prayer on the night before he died, “that they may be one . . . so that the world may believe” (John 17:20-21).
Nowhere is unresolved conflict among Christians more visible in Jerusalem than on the façade of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Just below the second-floor window, above and to the right of the main entrance, is a ladder that has been there since 1757. Christians who share the building cannot agree whether to remove it, or who should do so. For two and a half centuries.
The ladder reaches up to a window directly over Golgotha, the rocky outcrop (inside the building) where Jesus died. The ladder remains despite the fact that Christ ‘has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us,’ in order that ‘he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace . . . through the cross’ (Eph. 2:14-16).
The conflict ladder of shame next to Golgotha is there for all the world to see. So it is in my own denomination. Divisions might represent creative attempts to embrace a new future. But underlying the divisions usually are strains of self-righteousness, drive for power and fear of others — sins from which the cross should free us.
It helps me to repent of my part in division when I acknowledge that the church belongs to Jesus Christ, not to me or my perspective. “I will build my church,” Jesus said, “and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). Let’s start taking down some ladders on the face of the church for which Jesus gave his life.
Nelson Kraybill is a pastor at Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart, Ind., and president of Mennonite World Conference. See more of his peace reflections at peace-pilgrim.com.